Saturday, February 25, 2017

Bosch was the last thing we did in Vienna.

It was the last thing we did in Vienna, after mass at Stephansdom and one last café of significance. The mass was conducted in the local language, leaving me ample uninterrupted time to consider two major questions: exactly how many statues are there in that one cathedral? (Well over one hundred, but an exact count would require binoculars and moving around.) And how to keep my nose warm? Stick it into a bowl of nuked raw rice, which is how I warm up my fingers? Or create a knitted nose hat, not unlike the beaky nose-cones filled with sweet herbs worn by doctors during the Black Plague? Not unlike something that might be worn in a Boschian version of hell? Having solved neither question we headed to the Café Sperl. In 1988 and again in 1999 it was rated the best coffeehouse in Vienna, whatever that means, but I still preferred our Café Grienstadl. The plan was to walk back from Café Sperl to our Airbnb on Langskongasse and then take an Über to the airport, getting us there ridiculously early for our flight back to Frankfurt, but we were still traumatized from having missed our flight to Vienna five days earlier, necessitating an eight-hour train ride. A perfectly fine train, but still.
And still, we had not seen Vienna’s Bosch. Had we not seen Klimts and Schieles beyond count, and Bruegels, Arcimboldos, Rubens, Titians and a Vermeer? When is enough art too much art?
Not yet.
I realized I couldn't bear to leave Vienna without gazing on the Last Judgment. We ran around the corner to the Gemäldegalerie. We paid our fee and and ran through the galleries to the one and only Last Judgment. And there it was: the turbaned man with no torso and a lizard’s tail; the dragon leering at the naked Eve; red devils cooking and being cooked; the pierced egg with two legs; heads with feet and only feet; blue creatures playing flutes. It was all there, and so much more. Nobody could imagine the creepiness of Hell quite like Bosch.

Bosch was the last thing we did in Vienna.
Of course we got to the airport too early. We could have spent much more time contemplating the tortures that await us in the afterlife. We could have spent time in the gift shop where they sold ingenious figurines of assorted Bosch creepy creatures. (I already have one, and I know that Reine covets it.) At the airport there was time to finish the final pink pussyhat for Anna in Berlin. And eat Mozart chocolates filled with praline. We even made the plane.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Getting to know Sissi

Before going to Vienna last week with Bine, I had never heard of Sissi. Nor had I felt the lack of Sissi in my life. Before Vienna, I knew about the irascible Thomas Bernhard, and the sad exiles Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, about Freud’s couch, about Schiele and all his extraordinary, bony hands, about Bosch’s cracked eggs, webbed feet, fallen angels and impaled sinners, about Wiener Werkstätte.
Nothing about Sissi or any Hapsburgs at all.
Now I know that Sissi - real name: Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary and Queen consort of Croatia and Bohemia - was very beautiful and, to understate the case, obsessed with her beauty. Little girls growing up in Austria and Hungary watched the Sissi trilogy with Romy Schneider, and dreamt. Now, while admittedly I still don’t know much about Sissi, I know who she is and that she matters very much indeed. I have checked on Netflix for any of the many Sissi movies and mini-series, to cheat on my research, but sadly none are available on Netflix. My computer’s spelling program does not recognize Sissi, or its alternate spelling, Sisi.

I discovered Sissi via her sarcophagus. I had no idea about the Hapsburg predilection for fabulous monuments to their dead. Inside the Kapuzinkrypt, or Church of the Capuchins, I came to know a few Hapsburg tombs. As Bine predicted, Sissi’s had fresh flowers. So what that she died over 125 years ago. Bine told me how Sissi was born in Bavaria to a duke obsessed with circuses and his princess wife. Her childhood was, by noble standards, relatively rustic and unstructured. Sissi liked to catch frogs, ride horses and make daisy chains. Then she married Emperor Franz Joseph and even worse, acquired the formal and controlling Archduchess Sophie as a mother-in-law. Sissi often escaped the humorless rigidity of the Vienna court by heading to Hungary and parts beyond. And throughout, the maintenance of her beauty, her wasp waist and cascading hair, became her life’s work. Her beauty regimens are too painful to even describe. Poor Sissi was assassinated, almost by accident. The Italian anarchist was planning to assassinate the Duc d’Orleans that day, but when the duke changed his plans, the flexible anarchist went after the next noble to present herself, Sissi. There, on the promenade in Geneva, he stabbed Sissi with a sharpened file. Initially, her tightly laced corset staunched the blood flow, but she died just the same.

After making her acquaintance, after letting Sissi into my life, there was nothing to do but repair to the PalmHaus café (the second café in what would be a 5 café day) and drink pink wine in the sunshine.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

On Being Sick

Last night was my last night quarantined upstairs in Reine’s old room. I’ve been sick and banished, along with my germs. Not exactly banished. Not remotely banished, though pleasantly remote. It was more like taking a little vacation at home: just moving upstairs and excusing myself from real life.
Tonight I will move back in with my beloved on the assumption that I will not infect him with my copious germs. I am of course delighted to rejoining the marital bed, but still….

It was such a haven up there, gravely quiet but for the occasional hiss and clank of the radiator. Up there I can fall asleep midday, and then wake in the middle of the night, turn on the light, and read The Nix for hours. Or The Guermantes Way. Or both. I can watch a Mexican miniseries about Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, a 17th century scholar who had to become a nun on order to get the peace and quiet to study, read and write. Not surprisingly, in one of her greatest poems, “The Dream”, she writes of “the darkest hour of the night, shadow marking midpoint to the dawn…”

The rooms upstairs are the oldest in the house, unchanged since 1790 with their casement windows and bubbly glass, their sloped ceilings, their wide painted floor planks and fire places. The moldings are uneven and handmade, and the cracks in the wall, if they do not have the habit of looking like a rabbit, make me smile by resembling the Nile. These cracked walls have presided over scenes of love and lust, hysterical weeping, astronomical discoveries*, and clogged sinuses.
Because nothing is new under the sun, and certainly not in Reine’s room, every object tells a story. On the wall (cracked, of course) to my left, is a print of poor benighted Othello along with Iago as a corpulent burger, taken from Simplicissimus. Bine, my almost oldest friend, whose father was my grandfather’s friend and textile colleague, Bine, who taught me everything I know about European art and Euro-chic, gave it to me more than forty years ago. On the occasion of my first marriage. What did she know?

On the likewise cracked wall in front of me is the needlework “A Paris tous les 2” that I recently rescued from the Orchard armoire filled with linens and laces that Mom had no idea what to do with. None of us did, or do. This piece I assume was made by either my father’s mother, Germaine or his cousin, Madeleine in a distant French youth, but we will never know. It is not quite embroidery and not quite a collage. It portrays a red and black carriage being pulled by a brown horse with a white mane; the coachman wears a yellow shirt, a great cap and his legs are wrapped in a red and black checked blanket. The carriage appears to be empty, or perhaps the two who are heading to Paris are engaged in vigorous copulation in the aft portion of the carriage, and unseen through the window. I washed it in Woolite and ironed it and then dismantled yet another old frame, and framed it. Now I love it.
It replaces the poster from a Sandy Skoglund exhibit at the Smith College Museum featuring naked people walking upon eggshells among snakes emerging from toilet bowls. I am fond of that too, but one of the grandchildren found it disturbing, and so it has been deaccessioned. Others, not the disturbed grandchild, have focused on all those eggshells. Not the obvious metaphor made literal, much as I enjoy that, but the literal eggshells: Are they hard-boiled for strength? Are they uncooked? Are they blown and empties of their yolk and white? And if they were all blown out, hundreds of them, by whom? My cheeks get tired after blowing out two or three eggs at Easter-time. Lately I have heard there are devices that will blow out an egg for you, but I have never actually seen or used one.

Straight ahead is the desk cum bookcase that was made by Italian craftsmen in Egypt for Bonne Maman and Bon Papa. According to Mom, several of the pieces in her Little Red House were made in Cairo by Italian craftsmen, the very finest. This may well be true. In the mid 1950’s all that furniture traveled across the ocean in a huge wooden furniture crate that would be turned into our playhouse, and the scene of sunny afternoon re-enactments of family weirdness and power plays.
The desk cum bookcase would end up in Bonne Maman’s ‘sewing room’ in her house on South Pleasant Street. One entire shelf would be filled with the eleven volumes of Journeys Through Bookland. Between the red leather covers of Volume IV, I first read “The Dog of Flanders” and blubbered uncontrollably. In other volumes I read Robert Louis Stephenson, Aesop’s fables, and countless lesser lights of children’s literature. Now on the shelves are multiple translations of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. One can never tire of the Metamorphosis. Change, hubris, retribution and redemption never get old.
Flanking the desk cum bookcase are two rocking chairs. The left flanking rocker is from CSB’s house in Bedford, a lovely Empire style mahogany rocker upholstered in striped silk. The Branch’s - someone among the Branch’s - had great taste in fabric. They still do.
I did not ‘know’ that the rocker in question was Empire in style. In the past, by which I mean pre-Alzheimer’s, I could simply have called on my mother and described the chair and she would have said: Empire style, and then given me a brief disquisition on Empire, how it related to Napoleon and how he had used bees as his imperial symbol because he believed it connected him to the ancient kings of France, because a stash of gold bees was discovered in the tomb of the Merovingian king Childeric. But my mother no longer knows a Windsor chair from a Chippendale and so I have to resort to The Field Guide to American Antique Furniture. The stuff about Napoleon I already knew, though I may have made up the Childeric details.

The right flanking rocker is for a child; it was assembled and stenciled by Granny for her first grandchild. Like the red painted toy chest that Granny painted and stenciled for Reine 38 years ago. First grandchildren tend to be spoiled and given gifts they are far too young to appreciate, by their eager grandparents. I write from experience in three subsequent generations. My attic is full of examples.

On the marble mantel (Tuckahoe quarry, acquired in bulk for the whole house in 1849) is a photograph of Bonne Maman, at the site of excavations in the Valley of the Kings, clutching in each arm a large 4000-year-old terracotta vase. So I was always told, and I still believe it. Though certain questions creep in, such as: wasn’t it a bit nerve-wracking to carry something quite so old and quite so precious? Whose idea was it anyway? Why is she standing so close to a deep pit? One of the stories from my grandparents’ days in Egypt was about the director of the Cairo museum who carried a flame for my grandmother. That part made perfect sense. Anyone in his right mind would adore my grandmother. The story is that when the museum was reorganizing their collections, he wanted to give Bonne Maman a genuine eleventh dynasty mummy of child. Hence not so very large and cumbersome. She refused, graciously, having no interest in owning the dead embalmed body of a child, no matter how old or ornate. It need not be said that I regret her refusal.
Also on the mantel are two white porcelain figurines from China that CSB inherited from his mother, who spent her childhood in Shanghai. They represent laughing old men with long beards, and each one is missing a hand. I have always wondered why, and bemoaned, that in the dispersal of family treasures from China, poor CSB ended up with the amputated statues.

Back in our own room, I will miss Morgan, the sad and worn out stuffed basset hound who was the dog of our youth. He spent the last 40 years exiled to the third floor at the Orchard, and when the time came, I could not allow him to be exiled to the dumpster. So here he is in Reine’s room, which is really just an extra guest room since Reine’s real life is in the wilds of Brooklyn. I have deferred, delegated, ceded ultimate responsibility for Morgan. Someone else will have to commit Morgan to the dumpster, at some later date.

Then there is the Nyquil. When I have a bad cold, something involving the mellifluous ENT triad, something involving the less mellifluous mucus, I have to, I must, I am allowed to take Nyquil in order to sleep through the night. And sleep I do. But before sleeping I am overtaken by Lethe and her warm embrace, and before I am released by sleep I have dreams that, if they are not soothing, are compelling. Although yesterday I dreamed again that Bonne Maman was alive and we were on the deck of a large ship and she was telling me the names of the islands in the distance, in different languages, Arabic and Flemish, then also Coptic and Heliopolish and Dalatian. The more languages she told me, the more we laughed. Then a handsome man came to tell us very sad news about a broken propeller, but it took us a while to control our breathing enough to stop laughing.

Good night Nyquil. Good night Empire rocker. Good night stenciled toy chest. Goodnight Paris in a pony cart. Goodnight box of tissues. Good night poor sad Othello. Goodnight casement windows. Good night handless laughing Chinamen. Good night Bonne Maman clutching ancient funerary urns. Goodnight clanking radiator. Goodnight Sor Juana Inez. Goodnight lonely nights.

*Seriously. See The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Yesterday when I went next door to see Mom, she was lying down on her heating pad and looking at The Other Wise Man. She told me she was reading it, and asked where it came from. She showed me the inscription to "Christine and Jeffrey" and asked me who they were. I told her I was Christine, and Jeff was my late husband. I told her I had brought the book over for her, and she could read it all she wanted. Then I went into e next room to gather up all the random solicitations that had arrived this week.
Back in her bedroom she informed me that she was reading a certain book, and brandished The Other Wise Man. She asked me where it came from and showed me the inscription. I told her what it meant. I reminded her that when Dad was alive we used to read The Other Wise Man aloud on Christmas Eve.
“Who?” she asked.
“Dad,” I said. “I mean, Philip. Your husband. My father.”
She said, “Of course I know my husband.”

In the living room I discussed some logistics with Shedley. Mom followed, carrying the book, and told me she had been reading it, and showed me the cover and the inscription. “Do you know who these people are?” she said. I told her I was one of them. Not for the first time I wondered why -in order to make these interminable exchanges more interesting - I don’t invent other answers, or as Kellyanne Conway would say, “Alternative Facts.”

Christine and Jeffrey could be friends who were lost in the Amazonian jungle and bequeathed their library to me. I had to build new shelves just to accommodate their vast collection of Henry van Dyke.
Or, I could have found the book at a used book sale in Ogallala, Nebraska, where my car had broken down and I ended up spending three delightful days awaiting its repair and going to garage sales, yard sales and used book sales.
Or, I could have no idea of the book’s contents.
Or, The inscriptees could be my neighbors, from whom I had borrowed the book several years ago. My failure to return the book in a timely fashion had permanently damaged our former neighborly friendship.
Jeffrey could still be alive. He could still be my husband. The tall, kind man who takes my mother to church every Sunday could be an interloper.

Yesterday I stuck to the facts as I knew them. When Mom asked me where I had spent the morning I told her, “At a meeting about Alzheimer’s.”
“That’s nice,” she said. “What is Alzheimer’s?”
“It’s an illness,” I said. “That attacks the brain.”
“Why would you do that?” She asked. Shedley gave me one of her funny looks that I interpreted to mean: How are you going to handle this one, smarty-pants?
“Your mother had Alzheimer’s, and now you do, and I want to learn as much as I can about it.”
“There was nothing wrong with my mother,” Mom said. “What did you say I have?”
“I’ve never heard of it,” she said. “What does it do?”
“It attacks your brain. It’s why you can’t remember things.”
Shedley rolled her eyes at me. Just how much of a jerk was I?
“I brought you some nice chocolates from Maine,” I said. “Your favorite daughter sent them.”
“Who is that?”
“Brigitte!” Years ago, Mom used to get amusingly agitated whenever I referred to one of her children as a favorite, generally someone who was not in the room. She always responded indignantly that she had no favorites, loved us all equally, blah blah blah. I miss the Pavlovian certainly of that response.

Later, when I related to him the highlights of my day, CSB, the tall, kind man who takes my mother to church every Sunday, did not think much of my referring to Alzheimer’s at all with my mother. “Do you really have to tell her the truth about your day?” he said. Could he have been recommending “Alternative Facts”?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Weather Update

Just in from the Hastings on Hudson Weather Alert email Advisory:


Meanwhile, out between us and Broadway, the animatronic ungulates are frolicking.

Friday, January 6, 2017

On reading and loving Shirley Hazzard

A week or so before Christmas I turned to the Times obits, and read that
Shirley Hazzard had died. Just like that, at the kitchen table with half a grapefruit and last night’s potatoes, I was flooded with sadness and some kind of inexpressible longing.

The Transit of Venus was not her first book, but it was the first book of hers I read. It came out in 1980 and won an award. Did it change my life? That seems a bit melodramatic, but reading it then felt like walking off a cliff, landing in a Borgesian library and having it all make sense. It felt like reading a book in a newly-acquired language in which I was suddenly fluent. I loved everything about the novel. Hazzard could surgically dissect the conflict between a character’s intentions and his emotions, without telling us what she was doing. I loved the sentences that trailed off into the unsaid or unsayable. I loved the acquaintance with sorrow. In The Transit of Venus, much is known and much more is hidden, or coded. For the first time in my life, I wrote a fan letter to an author. I don’t recall what I said, but I suspect I gushed.
Shirley Hazzard wrote back, graciously, on pale blue stationary.
At the kitchen table, I recalled that I first read The Transit of Venus when my life seemed to be disappearing in front of me, when everything I trusted had become untrue. Basically, I was a mess and though I can’t claim that novel fixed my personal clusterfuck, it was an opening. Against all the obvious wisdom, I even longed for another girl child so I could name her Caro.
So it was about 35 years since I read the book, and I wondered how I would find it now. It was still on my shelf, between Hawthorne and Heaney, still in its pale blue dustjacket.
And yes, it remains one of the best books I have ever and most likely will ever read. Just before Christmas I quickly bought several copies – in paperback now – to give away. I plan to buy several more.
Hazzard’s next, and last, great novel is The Great Fire. I read that in 2003, and this time I managed to meet her.
That is, I was a member in those days of the Trollope Society and at the annual dinner Shirley Hazzard was to be the keynote speaker. It delighted me to learn that, like me, Shirley Hazzard enjoyed Trollope, and she admired him enough to discourse in public on Lady Glencora and others. So I paid some ridiculous sum of money, dressed up and went to the Knickerbocker Club one night, for the sole purpose of speaking to Shirley Hazzard and telling her of the extraordinary coincidence (and yes, I know there are no coincidences) that one her characters, Benedict Driscoll, was afflicted with a rare and debilitating disease called Friedrich’s ataxia, and that I, a mere reader of hers, was extremely devoted to a certain cousin-in-law who also suffered, and lived with, Friedrich’s ataxia. I had written about him in a short story, about his profound connection to his mortality and his love of bats. (He was a chiropteraphile, a word we both relished.) Like Benedict Driscoll, cousin Colby had a wide-ranging mind, a sly imagination and knew that death loomed everywhere. My children grew up joyriding with Colby on forest trails in his electric wheelchair. Colby could be reckless. He had attached to his electric wheelchair a high-pitched whistle in case he ever broke down in the woods and was being eaten alive by mosquitoes. One of the reasons he loved bats so much was that a single bat can eat up to 8000 mosquitoes in one night. I told all this to Shirley Hazzard.
And now she has died. She outlived her beloved husband by 20 years. I read in the obit that there were no survivors, that she had lost touch with her only sister years ago, and that she had “struggled with dementia”. I thought about that use of the word “struggle”. How people are said to “battle” with cancer, but apparently they “struggle” with dementia. In our back yard, in her Red House, is that what my mother is doing? Struggling with dementia?
Though I would wish dementia on no one, I realize that - while rereading Hazzard’s novels – I derived a strange and somewhat perverted solace in recognizing that her wonderful mind, like Iris Murdoch’s, like my mother’s, also struggled with dementia.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Going Away

I’ve heard that there are people who buy a ticket, throw clean underwear in a suitcase, grab their passport and cellphone charger, lock the door, and head out to distant lands.
That sounds amazing.

Before leaving for Vietnam and Cambodia we did what I thought was everything we could do to obviate any domestic crises in our absence. (It’s true I could not guarantee Bruno would not die, but he was in fine fettle for one so ancient, and the vet is on speed dial.)

We suspended the newspapers, engaged our chicken sitters, and dog sitters; we bottled honey for the Whitney museum; we made lots of lists; we mixed the paint for the dining room ceiling and floor; I made schedules for my mother’s caregivers for the next month and prepared a three-ring binder with encyclopedic information regarding my mother and her needs. (My mother has since hidden that three-ring binder; hiding things remains something she does remarkably well.)We double checked my mother's furnace. I paid my outstanding parking tickets, and returned my overdue library books. I harvested all the butternut squash and made pesto with the nasturtium leaves. We completed and sent in our absentee ballots.
That was not enough.

Then we flew to Vietnam. After 15 hours we alit at the airport in Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) where there are multitudes of stuffed pandas being sold, and only pandas. Then on to Hanoi.

I don’t know exactly what I imagined we would find in Hanoi: infinite variations on Ho Chi Minh’s beard? French-speaking Communists?
Not at all. For starters, we loved Hanoi. Or decided to love it once we learned how to cross the street. Never in my life have I seen so many motorbikes carrying so many people and animals and large articles unfit for transport by motorbike. We loved Ho Chi Minh’s collection of used cars.
I probably cannot say enough good things about Vietnam: the people, the food, the landscape, the food, and yes, the food.
And all was going well.We visited Halong Bay; we did not swim in the South China sea off Danang because of all the tiny jellyfish washing ashore. In the Hotel Saigon Morin, in Hue, the ancient capital, I saw a picture of Bon Papa, my grandfather, sitting in the lobby in 1939 smoking a cigar. I never knew him to smoke cigars. The next day was Tuesday November 8th in Vietnam, but still Monday the 7th in the USA. It stopped raining, so Hillary joined us in visiting the the tomb of Tự Đứ. Tu Duc was a 19th century Nguyen emperor who, even with 100 wives, never managed to beget himself a son. For all the usual dysfunctional dynastic reasons, Tu Duc actually took up residence in his tomb complex while still alive. And he is buried somewhere else; no one knows where. All the workers who buried the king were beheaded to keep them from revealing the secret. Still, it is called his tomb. There is a lesson here.
The next day was Wednesday morning in Vietnam, and Tuesday afternoon in the USA, and as we took a bus from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, I was texting with my brother and sister about the election results. We were lighthearted. Texting from halfway across the world seemed remarkable of itself. Then something very creepy started to happen. After all those weeks of The New York Times telling us that Hillary’s chance of winning was somewhere in the 80th and 90th percentiles, Trump was now projected to win. I checked other websites because this just seemed too weird and disturbing. And the Wifi on the bus was spotty, so some websites were not loading very quickly, or at all; I fixated on the spinning colored ball, as if the intensity of my gaze could re-align the stars and fix this election.
You all know what happened.
By mid-morning a funeral silence had enveloped our bus, as if we’d been overtaken by volcanic ash.
By the time we arrived at Cần Thơ, known for its floating markets and Vietnam’s worst-ever engineering disaster, it was a ‘fact’ (yes, a bizarre word to use relation to a presidential campaign that had been fact-free, positively fact-allergic.) that Trump had won the electoral college and the world as we know it - the world as we hoped it might become – was no longer.
Drinking and lamentations ensued. I was overcome with shame.
In the days that followed, I felt compelled to apologize to every Vietnamese person we encountered. They had been so gracious, so forgiving, and this is what the Americans just perpetrated on the planet. Almost universally, the Vietnamese had more important things to do than worry about the emergence of Trumpistan: growing rice, raising silkworms, tuning up all-purpose motorbikes, reforesting the mountains, saving the depleted fisheries and making pho.